This is really music that deserves always to be played and always to be heard. His music touches . . . absolutely all the aspects of our life and our character.
—pianist Denis Kozhukhin
I was introduced to Sergei Prokofiev’s music in college.* An acquaintance who played violin claimed there was no higher instrument—certainly the piano could not come close—and was about to demonstrate why. He stood poised over the phonograph, a recording of Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos in hand. He looked almost shame-faced (not his usual style), so I wondered what was up. “I know Prokofiev is considered a lightweight,” he said, “but I like him anyway.”
I was captivated by the concertos, but I wasn’t about to say so, for it would come at the price of conceding the violin was a more expressive instrument than the piano. The more he insisted, the more I resisted. I played the piano as a kid and had my loyalties to maintain, after all. But more than that, why did it need to be a contest?
A few years later, I began to acquire my own Prokofiev recordings. I had no idea what was what, but it seemed only reasonable that I should give the piano concertos a try. My first purchase was a recording of Piano Concertos 3 and 5, and oh how splendid they were! The fellow who’d proclaimed the superiority of the violin wasn’t around to be convinced, but it didn’t matter. From then on, while all around me were playing The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead top volume on their stereos, those piano concertos were rocking out on mine.
Time passed, the records got put away somewhere, CDs replaced vinyl, and I moved on to other things. A couple years ago, Prokofiev came to my attention again. David Nice, it transpired, had written a book about him, so I picked it up. A good bit of it sailed over my head, I’ll admit, but it’s full of my margin notes, one of them marking a favorite story of mine from the book.
The story concerned Prokofiev’s first opera (written when he was nine). Nice wrote, “Toward the end, the piano line flew higher and higher until it disappeared off the keyboard.” Those two piano concertos came to mind at once. Though in the concertos, the piano lines stayed within the piano’s range, I could have sworn I heard notes lift off the keyboard and rocket into space.
I never really got what the “lightweight” claim was about. I recalled it only recently, when Denis Kozhukhin, a pianist who was born in Russia, made a claim for Prokofiev’s three War Sonatas (Sonatas 6, 7, and 8) to quite the opposite effect:
These sonatas are, I think, as important for Russian music in the twentieth century as Shostakovich symphonies. [Prokofiev’s] music was very special for me since I was a kid. He has always touched me, and he has always made me look into the past of my own country.
I knew something of the travails of Shostakovich, but nothing about those of Prokofiev, aside from the bare fact. The War Sonatas, I soon learned, were directly affected by the vagaries of State judgment. Though the Eighth Sonata received a Stalin Prize in 1946, that didn’t stop it from being banned. (Nor did Prokofiev’s award of the rank of People’s Artist of the RSFSR in 1947.) Alex Ross wrote:
On February 10, 1948, the Central Committee issued what became known as the “Historic Decree.” Four days later, forty-two works by “formalists”—including Shostakovich’s Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies [and] Prokofiev’s Sixth and Eight Sonatas . . .—were banned.
Yet the impact of the War Sonatas on Kozhukhin wasn’t explained by history alone. Kozhukhin went on to say of them,
It also helps me to try to understand the present of my country. They still remain for me extremely modern, you know? They touch the problems. Maybe now I’m talking like it could be a book, but for me it is. This is really music that deserves always to be played and always to be heard. His music touches all the, absolutely all the, aspects of our life and our character . . . .
Kozhukhin’s reference to “modern” struck me, too. In the midst of trying to learn more about Prokofiev and his War Sonatas, I attended an exhibit of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Washington, DC. The constellation of talent Diaghilev collected for collaborations among artists and composers, including Prokofiev, surely qualifies as one of the grandest of modernist experiments. The exhibit catalogue refers to Prokofiev specifically, along with Stravinsky, as “cutting-edge” and “modernist.”
Musicologist Richard Taruskin, though, might be seen to disagree:
Not even Prokofieff, conservatory-trained and proud of it, was truly an avant-garde artist. His technique, like Stravinsky’s or Scriabin’s, may have been “advanced” by conservatory standards, but it was elite, highly professionalized, and . . . committed to extending a tradition. That implies loyalty to the tradition one is extending, even if one is extending it to the point of “decadence.” An avant-garde is something else. The term is military, and it implies belligerence: countercultural hostility, antagonism to existing institutions and traditions.
Perhaps Stravinsky’s comment about composing within established forms holds the key:
In borrowing a form already established and consecrated, the creative artist is not in the least restricting the manifestations of his personality. On the contrary, it is more detached and stands out better, when it moves within the limits of a convention.
It’s certainly true that Prokofiev, in composing the War Sonatas, used a well-established form. Yet, for me, the sound Prokofiev pours into that form seems as fresh and boundary-breaking as many 21st century compositions do.
Sviatoslav Richter, for whom Prokofiev composed the Seventh Sonata, wrote at the time, “with this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign.” What’s remarkable to me about his observation is how closely it fits my own experience in listening to that sonata today.
Both within and between movements, we are not allowed our balance. We have no choice but to hold on in terror and in hope. The first movement opens on a race of notes and percussive punches that slowly fade into a drifting dream, only to abandon it and build to a furious boil. The music dissolves again into reverie, out of which we’re yanked by a last torrent of notes.
The second movement caresses us with pure melody, rescuing us from the taunt of nightmare and allowing us our dreams. Yet here, too, as we float on each lovely note, anguish tugs at melody and surmounts it. We hang on in hope until, in slowly rocking rhythms, the terror fades away, and the longed-for melody returns. The last movement breaks utterly the spell of song in a shower of percussive bursts. We are propelled into a wild chaos from which we can be saved only by magisterial pianistic control.
Kozhukhin closed his remarks by telling us what Prokofiev’s music, and particularly the War Sonatas, means to him:
What is so special about his music is that he has really two lines in his music, not in only these sonatas, but in these sonatas I think he really gets to the extreme of it, which is, one of them is epic side of his music and the other line is this extremely intimate, lyric, and touching, sometimes shy, melodic way of talking through the music, and the contrast of these two things is really incredible.
I agree—and what’s more, in the War Sonatas, Prokofiev achieves that incredible result by means of a single instrument: the piano.
*Postscript: I have been reminded by a very reliable familial source that, truth be told, my very first introduction to Prokofiev was at a much younger age, via Peter and the Wolf, on an LP in which Eleanor Roosevelt was the narrator. I still worry about what happened to that duck.
The War Sonatas, played by Denis Kozhukhin
The War Sonatas, played by Sviatoslav Richter
Seventh Sonata, played by Sviatoslav Richter
Seventh Sonata, third movement, played by Denis Kozhukhin
Credits: I am indebted, as I often am, to David Nice’s blog for the introduction to the War Sonatas and the Kozhukhin and Richter recordings. The blog post about Kozhukhin’s live performance of the War Sonatas, as part of London’s The Rest is Noise Festival, may be found here. The quotations from Denis Kozhukhin are my transcription of his comments about the War Sonatas, which may be found here. Kozhukhin’s website may be found here. The quotation from David Nice’s book, Prokofiev—A Biography: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, may be found here. The quotation about the “Historic Decree,” from Alex Ross’s book, The Rest Is Noise, may be found here. The exhibit catalog from which indicated quotations were taken (including that from Stravinsky) is no longer available through the National Gallery of Art from the exhibit catalog, but the site with information on the exhibit may be found here. The quotation from Richard Taruskin’s book, Music in the Early Twentieth Century, may be found here. The quotation from Richter may be found in many sources, including the program notes here, along with some commentary on the Seventh Sonata.
Photo Credits: The photograph at the head of the post is mine, of albums I own. The remaining images may be found at the hyperlinks indicated: Prokofiev with his first opera score; USSR stamp, Birth Centenary of Prokofiev, 1991; Sketches for the costume and set designs of Prokofiev’s ballet Chout, premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris May 17, 1921; Album Cover, Prokofiev Sonatas 6, 7, 8, pianist Denis Kozhukhin; Sergei Prokofiev as drawn by Henri Matisse April 25, 1921.